Veronica Scarver mixes all her ingredients together to make the black bottom pie she prepares regularly at the Colonial Steak House. (Special to the Commercial/William Harvey)
Take some crushed graham crackers and form them into a pie crust, then add in some rich chocolate, followed by homemade custard spiced up with some rum and you end up with a popular dessert from a local eatery that has found its way into a recently published book on Arkansas pies.
Joe Coker, proprietor of the Colonial Steak House in Pine Bluff, says that his establishment’s black bottom pie is a perennial crowd pleaser.
“We get quite a few compliments on it,” Coker said of the creamy concoction prepared completely from scratch by his longtime baker, Veronica Scarver. “Veronica was here when I bought the restaurant 20 years ago and when she had to leave for a few years she taught her aunt how to make it and the transition was seamless.”
Coker emphasized the importance he and his staff place on making the dessert from scratch.
“You have to make each pie in stages and then you must allow it to set so that it firms up,” Coker said. “The whole process takes about 24 hours. We also make a two-layer cheese cake and an old-fashioned lemon ice box pie.”
Coker said that a constant insistence on quality food and quality service forces him to occasionally disappoint some customers.
“I’d rather tell you I’m sorry we’re out of black bottom pie than to sell something that is inferior,” Coker said of the importance placed on allowing the dessert to set.
When asked if black bottom pie is the overall favorite among customers Coker replied that it is in a race with the ice box pie.
“Black bottom was the front-runner for a long time but the ice box has been rapidly catching up,” Coker said.
The black bottom pie was featured in “Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State,” by Kat Robinson, published Dec. 5, 2012 by History Press.
The Colonial’s black bottom pie is discussed in the first part of the book in a section titled ‘The Pies of Legend.’
“Between a creamy top and a dark chocolate bottom layer similar to that of a French silk pie lies thick, rum-laden custard,” Robinson writes. “The scent of it permeates the entire pie. It’s a hefty pie, too, with a slice weighing as much as a large burger. It’s also extraordinarily rich.”
Veronica Scarver is a soft-spoken woman whose fluency in the language of cooking allows her to create true delicacies.
“For a long time,” is Scarver’s answer to the question of how long she has been working at Colonial.
“It really is a like a family here at the restaurant because my actual family works with me,” Scarver said. “My aunt [Helen Scarver] and my mother [Linda Scarver] work with me in the kitchen and my cousin works here, too.”
Scarver said that the making of the pies is fairly straightforward and proceeded to whip up three of them in the restaurant’s kitchen on a recent Friday evening.
“I start out with the crumbled graham crackers,” Scarver said as she lifted a box of them onto her prep table and proceeded to scoop some into a glass bowl. “Next, I add some butter into it so that it all sticks together.”
Scarver, who makes the black bottom pies three at a time, began creating the crusts in each of three pie pans arranged on the prep table.
Once the crusts are made she uses an empty pie pan to smooth out the crusts by placing it on top of each crust and pressing down for a few seconds.
“While the pie crust browns I’ll start on the pie itself,” Scarver said as she placed each of the pie pans into an oven.
Scarver adds sugar, milk, butter and egg whites together in a large pot to create the custard for the pie and places it on a back burner already lit up in tall, blue flame.
“I only use the whites for the black bottom pie and save the yolks for the lemon ice box pie,” Scarver said as she deftly separated each yolk from its whites and placed the yolks back into the shells.
“I don’t use actual measurements when I add everything in,” Scarver said. “I know how to make these pies by heart.”
“This is the Colonial so I do it the old-fashioned way,” Scarver laughed.
Scarver next prepared the chocolate used to create the actual black bottom of the pie.
“You have to be really careful with this because you can ruin it in a hurry and it is not something that you want to get on you,” Scarver said as the cocoa mixture she stirred assumed an almost molten texture.
“No, it’s a lot painful,” Scarver said in answer to a question posed to her asking if getting the gooey hot chocolate on her skin was a little painful.
Soon the chocolate was ready and after mixing in some of the now bubbling custard she ladled it out into the three pie pans.
“Now we add in the rum,” Scarver said of the ingredient that gives the pie an extra level of richness. “I use two cups of Bacardi Rum that is divided into the three pies.”
Once she has thoroughly mixed the rum into the custard Scarver ladles it on top of the waiting layer of chocolate.
“Now they’re finished,” Scarver said. “But I don’t put them directly into the refrigerator. If you put them in immediately they sweat and the moisture makes the crust wet. So I leave them on the counter for a couple of hours. Then they go into the refrigerator for 24 hours to set.”
When asked the secret to a good pie, Scarver had a succinct answer.
“Patience is one secret,” Scarver said. “Because you have to stir it a lot.”